It always amused Abdul that he, who so disdained flowery language, could begin the story of his greatest friendship with the phrase, “it was a dark and stormy night.”
But so it was.
A Saturday night in June, to be exact. Rain smacked against the windows of his converted-warehouse flat in Shadwell, thunder boomed and lightning periodically illuminated the deserted street outside. Somewhere, the lightning must’ve scored a direct hit, because the inside lights had started to flicker, distracting him from his packing.
He was up late, going over the details of the next day’s journey over and over again in his mind, remembering things he needed to pack and jumping up to get them. And thus he was still fully dressed when someone banged on his door.
He’d dropped the shirt he was folding and sprinted down the hall to open the door before it occurred to him that some caution might be in order. All those years since he’d left Oban, and he still hadn’t shed his rural ways.
Luckily, no criminal awaited him on the other side of the door, but rather two familiar-looking teen-aged girls with a half-conscious white man slung between them. The girls seemed scarcely discomposed by the weather, rain beading on their braids and dark-skinned faces, but the man was drenched, water streaming from his hair onto the shoulders of his sodden trench coat, puddling at his feet.
“Dr. Liddell?” the older girl asked, addressing him with the name by which the world still knew him.
As soon as she spoke, he placed the girls: two of the numerous daughters of Mrs. Thames, who lived at the bottom of the street, backing onto the river. His upstairs neighbour, Mrs. Khanna, had named them all to him one day, in tones of somewhat inexplicable awe, as the daughters, their impressive-looking mother, and assorted other women, had disembarked from the longest limo Abdul had ever seen. What was the name of the older one? Something beginning with ‘T’—Tara, perhaps, or Tina? Her eyes slanted upwards like a cat’s.
Abdul nodded, accepting the name. The girl and her sister seemed to take that as permission to bring the man across the threshold and start dragging him into Abdul’s front room. Afterwards, he wondered how he’d let himself be muscled aside by two skinny girls, but they moved with such confidence that it seemed futile to protest, handling the weight of the much larger man with ease.
“What’s happened to him?” he asked, trailing in what was literally their wake, since the man left a slick of water in his passage across Abdul’s clean floors.
“Fell in the river, didn’t he?” said Tara or Tina, with about as much concern as you’d have for a stray sweet wrapper. “We fished him out, and Mum says you’re to look after him.”
“You’re a doctor, right?” said the sister. She was shorter, and a bit more muscularly built, but with the same cat-shaped eyes and self-confidence. Abdul couldn’t remember her name at all.
“I’m a gastroenterologist.” Thunder boomed overhead as the sisters draped the dripping man over Abdul's nearly-new leather sofa. The man muttered something incoherent. “Why can’t you look after him?”
Maybe-Tina looked down her nose at him, an impressive feat given she was a foot shorter than him and two decades younger. “That’s a bit complicated, innit?” she said, in a tone that would’ve done a Westminster politico proud.
“Take him to A&E, then.”
“In this?” the sister said, gesturing towards the windows. “Not our manor.”
Abdul gave up for the time being, and turned his attention to the man. The was no visible blood on him, all his limbs went in the proper directions, and he was breathing reasonably well, if slowly; but his eyes were closed and his skin was bone-pale. When Abdul touched his face it was icy cold. “How’d he end up in the river?” he asked, thinking the man must’ve been in a long time, to get that cold, this time of year.
“Dunno.” Maybe-Tina shrugged, but her extraordinary eyes cut away from him. “C’mon, Eff.
The sisters retreated towards the front door, but Maybe-Tina paused with her hand on the knob. “Mum says you’re to make sure he’s all right,” she said, in a commanding tone that belied her age. She’d go far, this one.
“You know him?” Until this point, Abdul had assumed the man was a random rescue of some sort.
“Well, not me. But mum does. She called him the Nightingale.”
And then they were gone. Abdul watched them for a moment through the door’s cut-out window. The driving rain seemed not to inconvenience them at all. They weren’t, he realized belatedly, even wearing jackets, and their feet slapped the dark pavement in brightly-colored flip-flops.
Cursing the Hippocratic Oath, Abdul made his way back to his sitting room. Tonight, of all nights, to be saddled with a stranger in distress, much less one with a street handle that made him sound like an enforcer for some East End gang. Allah moved in mysterious ways.
Well, he’d let A&E sort it out. He went back to the hall to use the wall phone, but paused with his hand over the receiver. Even with ringing the control centre directly, he knew from past experience it would take an ambulance over an hour to get there on a stormy Saturday night, especially for a non-critical situation. Meanwhile, he was duty bound to give basic first aid. Perhaps he could get the man into decent enough shape to ring a friend to collect him.
Mind made up, Abdul approached the man on the couch, and tried to rouse him. After a few ungentle shakes of the shoulder and knee, the man opened his eyes blearily.
“Sir,” Abdul said, slow and loud like he’d been trained to do as a junior doctor. “Can you tell me your name? Your name, sir?”
The man blinked. “Tho…Thom..as…” His voice was slow, slurred. A part of Abdul’s brain grimly ticked off the symptoms of hypothermia.
“Well, Thomas, you’ve had an accident. In the river. Can you remember what happened?” No response. “I’m a doctor: Dr. Liddell. I’m going to have to get these wet clothes off you. See if we can warm you up.” He was trying for the cheerful, confident tone of A&E physicians, but something about the storm and the girls’ appearance had unnerved him, and he sounded tentative to his own ears.
Not that it mattered. The man’s eyes had slid shut again. Seeing no help for it, Abdul set about wrestling him out of his coat and three-piece suit. It was hard going; Thomas-the-Nightingale tried to help, but he was clumsy, and semi-conscious at best. Still, Abdul had had a fair amount of experience in such things, and he managed to get the man down to his oddly old-fashioned underwear in a relatively short time.
Thomas’s suit, Abdul couldn’t help noticing as he unpeeled it from cold limbs, was at least twenty years out of date, but beautifully cut—bespoke, he guessed. It was made of the kind of expensive wool that even a dip in the Thames couldn’t ruin. A good cleaning and it would be fine, he thought enviously, as he piled the wet garments on his floor—as long as they could get rid of the riparian stench.
Under his clothes, Thomas was surprisingly healthy: slim, but not at all frail. Abdul would’ve guessed his age at near sixty, going by his face, but his body seemed younger than that, or at least impressively well-preserved. There was some very old scarring near his shoulder, but no sign of more recent injury. Abdul pressed an ear to his chest; as far as he could tell, Thomas’s lungs were clear—perhaps the Thames girls had done some initial first aid after all. But his pulse was weak and his body temperature so low he wasn’t even shivering. Mild to moderate hypothermia, no doubt. Still, there seemed no immediate need to call an ambulance.
Abdul pulled the plaid throw off the armchair and draped it over his uninvited guest. “Stay put,” he ordered, though there appeared to be no danger of the Nightingale flying off anywhere tonight, and went in search of towels, blankets, dry clothes and something warm to feed the man.
What he really needed, he reflected as he rummaged through the airing cupboard, was a good old-fashioned hot water bottle. His mother had an impressive variety—the frequency of people ending up drenched, chilled, or both, being remarkably high on Oban. She had even tried to press one on him when he moved south, but he had scoffed at the need for such a thing in London. The more fool he.
He had just located his winter duvet—green and lumpy, but warm—an old fleece, and a pair of jogging bottoms, when an enormous clap of thunder boomed overhead. The house lights shone bright for a moment. Then they all went out.
“Bugger,” said Abdul. As if the night could get any more complicated.
Though apparently, it could.
As he turned back towards the sitting room, a light bloomed in the darkness.
A torch? he wondered. Could Thomas have had a torch secreted somewhere in his clothing? But it didn’t look like torchlight.
And indeed, when he turned the hall corner, he found his guest stark naked in the middle of his sitting room, staring fixedly at a tiny fireball hovering about a meter above his outstretched hand.
“What the fuck?” said Abdul, surprised into profanity.
It was the wrong move. Thomas turned his furious, desperate, face away from the fireball and towards Abdul. Whatever he was seeing, it wasn’t the humble sitting room of a Scottish gastroenterologist. The fireball flew up towards the ceiling, and all the puddles on the floor collected themselves into a globe of water that slammed into Abdul’s chest with the force of a fire hose. His recent award for research on diseases of the small bowel—a hefty crystal paper weight—careened off the mantel of his bricked-up fireplace and crashed into the wall about six inches from his head.
“Thomas,” Abdul shouted, dropping his bundle and flinging up his arms to protect his head. “Stop—I’m just trying to help. Dr. Liddell, remember? We’re not enemies. We don’t even know each other.”
He continued babbling, on his knees now, while various household goods spun haphazardly through the room. In the end, however, it wasn’t Abdul’s persuasive powers that saved him, but rather the exhaustion and poor motor coordination attendant upon hypothermia. The objects settled to the floor with relieved thumps, and the fireball fizzled, returning the room to darkness. Finally, Abdul heard a series of sounds indicating that Thomas had crumpled to the floor in a tangle of shivering limbs and chattering teeth.
“Now,” said a voice in his head he recognized as his mother’s, “would be a good time to call the police.”
But, as had happened so many times before, Abdul paid the voice no mind at all.
It wasn’t just that Thomas’s desperate violence had increased his sympathy for the man, although, perversely enough, that was true. It was more, if he were honest with himself, and he always tried to be, that his curiosity was piqued—more than piqued, set ablaze—by the Nightingale’s display of eldritch power. Telekinesis, that was what they called the ability to make objects move without touching them, wasn’t it? Not to mention the thing with the fireball. If the police stepped in now, Abdul would never know how Thomas had done it.
And so, instead of stumbling towards his telephone, he made his very careful way to the miserable body on his floor.
“Hey,” he coaxed, in a voice entirely unlike his official National Health tones. “Easy now, yeah? Do you think you can get up, if I help you? That couch is just about done for, with the water, but you can kip in my bed. That’s it—there you go.”
Somehow—Thomas’s weight staggered him far more than it had the girls—Abdul maneuvered him around the suitcases cluttering the floor of his bedroom, and under the covers of his bed. Whatever manic surge of energy had fueled his attack had deserted Thomas now; he collapsed onto the sheets with no noise but a faint moan. Abdul retrieved the torch he kept in the bedside table, took the calculated risk that Thomas wouldn’t start hallucinating again and flinging objects about with his mind, and headed back down to collect the heavy duvet and clothes he’d dropped, along with the minimal medical kit he kept at home.
He’d thought to reassess the situation by taking Thomas’s temperature and listening more carefully to his lungs, perhaps get some hot liquids in him, but when he got back to the room, Abdul found him shivering hard enough to set the bed shaking, and making a noise distressingly close to whimpering. On highly questionable impulse—because when is it ever a good idea to get close to a man who has recently been trying to knock your head off?—Abdul shucked most of his own clothes, damp from the water bombing he’d sustained, slid under the covers with him, and pulled the winter duvet over them both.
It was a recommended form of first aid—body heat being more effective than any hot water bottle—and Abdul doubted that even with the shivering Thomas was going to be able to sufficiently raise his body temperature on his own. And yet he regretted his decision almost as soon as he’d made it. It felt strange to be so close to a man he didn’t know, especially one who still stank of river water. Worse, the sound Thomas was making turned out not be whimpering, but rather soft, slurred, agonized words.
“B-b-bevan,” he was muttering, though it could’ve been Beeman, or Baran, the sound was so mangled by his chattering teeth. “H-h-have you s-s-seen him? I c-c-can’t find him.”
“Whisht,” Abdul murmured, Thomas’s distress striking a chord of protectiveness in him he’d barely known he possessed. “Never mind that now.”
“N-n-no. I n-n-need to find him. You know him. My s-s-sergeant—he’s a ginger, like you, but shorter. I’m w-w-worried he’s d-d-dead. They’re all d-d-dead, in that sector. But maybe he wasn’t with them.”
Thomas was becoming more and more agitated, pushing at the covers and making as if to rise. Any more of this and we’re back to fireballs, Abdul thought. So he put both hands on Thomas’s bare shoulders, trying to calm him with touch as well as words.
“We’ll find him. You need to warm up, and rest for a bit. You’re no good to anyone in this condition. We’ll find him as soon as there’s light.”
Thomas didn’t seem to believe him, but he was too weak to resist as Abdul eased him back onto the bed and pulled the duvet up around his shoulders. He tossed his head on the pillow, lips still moving soundlessly. In the dim light of the torch propped on the bed stand, Abdul thought he saw the glint of tears.
After a while, though, the warmth of the bed and the exhaustion of the night worked their own sort of magic. As Abdul watched, Thomas slipped into a true sleep. The shivering settled down to an occasional tremor, and his cheek, when Abdul touched it, was almost warm.
Abdul flicked off the torch. Rain still rolled across the roof in unrelenting sheets, but the thunder and lightning seemed to have moved on. He thought about going back to packing, but it would be difficult to do much by torchlight. He didn’t think he’d sleep, but it really was quite late, the bed was warm, and perhaps the events of the night had tired him out, as well.
He awoke to the sound of harsh coughing. The room was still pitch black, and for a moment, the unmistakable presence of another body in his bed made him think of entirely different circumstances. Then he remembered. He scrabbled on the bed stand for the torch, and clicked it on to illuminate a pale middle-aged face, contorted now by coughing, and framed by hair that had dried to a soft, faded brown.
“Well,” said the man, after he’d caught his breath, “It’s been a long time since I’ve woken up naked in the bed of someone I didn’t know.”
His voice, recovered from its hypothermic slurring, was hoarse but pleasant, with a perfect RP accent. His amused self-possession, so different from the fury and sadness of only a few hours before, surprised a grin out of Abdul.
“We have been introduced, after a fashion. I’m Abdul: Dr. Abdul Haqq Walid.”
Thomas frowned, his amusement gone. And then frowned harder, as if the events of the night were coming back to him, too. “I’m sorry. I think—I think perhaps I was not quite myself for a while, there— But didn’t you—am I imagining that you gave me a different name, earlier?”
“I did. But I’m changing it. Have changed it.” And for perhaps the first time, Abdul felt that was really true. The events of the night seemed to have strengthened his resolve. He hadn’t thought of himself as Archie Liddell for a while, now. Time the rest of the world stopped as well. “Call me Abdul.”
Thomas nodded, accepting this, but still frowned. “I seem to remember giving you a bit of a hard time last night, Abdul. I hope I didn’t—“ He hesitated, worried. “I hope I didn’t hurt you.”
“No, no,” Abdul assured him. “Hypothermia can muddle the mind like that—I’ve seen worse. Though never, perhaps, with your particular skills.”
Thomas smiled ruefully. “It was the cold. Even after all these years, being very cold always brings it flooding back.” He didn’t say what it was, and Abdul didn’t ask. Some military trauma, judging from what he’d heard last night, though in what war, he couldn’t imagine. Thomas pushed himself up on one elbow and offered his hand. “Inspector Thomas Nightingale, pleased to meet you.”
“You’re a policeman?” Abdul sat bolt upright in bed. Somehow this information surprised him more than anything else that had happened that night. Possibly more than the magic. He was in bed with a naked, magical detective. That was intriguing in a way that nothing had been intriguing for a long time.
His shock made Thomas laugh, and the laugh turned into another racking cough. Contrite, Abdul scrambled out of bed and located his medical kit. “I really should check you out. That was quite a nasty soaking. Do you mind?” He held out a thermometer and his stethoscope as evidence of his intentions.
“I’m fine,” Thomas said. “But if it will set your mind at ease.” He took the thermometer and slipped it under his tongue. Abdul laid two practiced fingers along Thomas’s wrist while he waited; his skin was cool, but not cold, to the touch, and his pulse strong and regular. His temperature, when Abdul got a reading, was still low, but not in hypothermic range.
“Well, you’ve come out of it better than I expected,” Abdul said, and refrained from adding, for a man your age. “No immediate ill effects.”
“Sturdy stock, us Nightingales. Hard to kill.” Cheerful words, but Abdul imagined he heard something bitter behind them.
“Do you remember how you came to be in the river,” he asked, pressing his stethoscope to Thomas’s back. He took care to keep his voice neutral.
“Ah.” The smooth flow of air in and out of Thomas’s lungs stuttered for a moment. “An impulse, that’s all. The storm, perhaps—it seemed to blow open doors I try to keep shut, as it were.” He laughed. “An ill-considered impulse, at that. I’d forgotten how populated the river is these days.”
Or perhaps some part of you was counting on it, Abdul thought, but all he said was, “So you remember my neighbours, the Thames girls, rescuing you?”
"Yes. I was quite far down when they found me. Quite far gone. But there’s no gainsaying them on their own turf. So here I am.”
Abdul ignored the implications about the Thames girls—he’d experienced their powers of persuasion himself, after all—and held to the heart of the matter. “By rights, I should bring you in for a psych eval. You know that, yeah?”
“I appreciate your concern,” said Thomas, “But there’s no need. It was an impulse, as I said. It’s passed now.”
He looked so calm and self-possessed, even naked and wrapped in Abdul’s hideous green duvet, that Abdul was tempted to believe him. Still, he couldn’t forget what he’d seen just hours before. “Be that as it may. I have a colleague who does excellent work with combat trauma—I’ll give you his name.”
Thomas seemed to find the term “combat trauma” amusing. “Thank you, but I doubt his expertise extends to my situation.”
“You’d be surprised,” Abdul said, but left it at that. There was a certain kind of British stubbornness one could never overcome. “Your lungs are clear, as far as I can tell. But who knows what you swallowed or were exposed to in there. You should certainly see your own doctor as soon as you’re able, but I can write you a prescription for some prophylactic antibiotics, if you like. And if you experience any fevers, or rashes, you’re to seek medical advice immediately.”
“Yes, doctor.” Thomas held his gaze, as if to apologize for his earlier pigheadedness. “I don’t think I’ve thanked you properly. For looking after me. Even when I was, let’s say, less than friendly. Most men would’ve called the police or the ambulance service. And I’m grateful not to have had more people see me—well, see me in the state I was in last night. I am in your debt.”
“Yes, well, don’t mention it.” Abdul was not without his own version of British diffidence. “What you could really use is a hot drink. But my electric cooker is no good to us there. Unless you can…?” Abdul waggled his fingers in a way meant to indicate the conjuring of tea.
Thomas shook his head, regretfully.
“Oh, wait a moment—I think I can solve our dilemma. Put these on,” Abdul tossed Thomas the fleece and tracksuit bottoms. “Stay here and keep warm—I’ll be back in a tick.”
He grabbed some fresh clothes for himself and checked his watch: 3 am, and no sign of the power coming on before dawn. But there, at the back of his broom closet, just as he remembered, was the camping stove he’d bought for a fell walking holiday several years earlier. He hoped it still had some fuel in it. It took him two trips, but he brought the stove, tea things and biscuits up to the bedroom, and then set about trying to light the stove, the torch held awkwardly under his chin.
“Would this help?” asked Thomas. He whispered a word, and uncurled his hand to reveal one of his tame fireballs. It drifted over to hang above Abdul’s head. Abdul let the torch drop, relieved, and got the stove lit on his next try.
In the uncanny yellow light, the full disarray of Abdul’s bedroom was revealed: suitcases lying open and half-filled, stacks of clothes and books and other sundries covering most surfaces.
“I’m sorry to have interrupted your packing,” Thomas observed mildly. “Holiday?”
That was the story Abdul had given everyone he knew, even his family. But he seemed to have established a policy of honesty with Thomas Nightingale. “I’m going on Hajj,” he said. “I leave for Riyadh tomorrow—well, I suppose it’s tonight, now.”
“Ah.” Thomas accepted the information with another of his courtly nods. “I wish you joy of your journey. The desert is very beautiful.”
“You’ve been there?”
“Not to Mecca. But to that part of the world. Of course, it was called the Hejaz in those days—before Ibn Saud and his crew took charge.”
Abdul, who had been pouring the heated water into the teapot, almost burnt himself. “But that was—You can’t be—“
Thomas, sitting cross-legged on the bed in Abdul’s cheerful red fleece, a half-eaten biscuit in one hand, looked, if anything, younger than he had last night—and certainly not like someone who had been touring the Middle East in the 1920s.
“Older than I look, yes. The thing is,” Thomas said, to Abdul’s incredulous stare. “I’ve been noticing some, erm, phenomena lately about which I’d be grateful to have a doctor’s advice. A doctor like yourself, that is, who is prepared to explore events outside ordinary experience. Perhaps, when you return, you might visit me—“ But he must have noticed something change in Abdul’s face at his words, because his eyes swept around the room again, taking in the number and size of the cases. “I see. You’re not planning on coming back, are you?”
“I don’t know.” Abdul turned his attention resolutely to the tea, pouring it into mugs and mixing in milk and sugar. How to explain the light that Islam had brought into his life? And how that light had created shadows and dark corners where none had been before? He offered one of the mugs to Thomas. “I haven’t decided. It’s just—have you ever felt that the world you live in is not the world you’re meant to inhabit?”
“I think you know I have,” said Thomas, taking the mug. Their fingers brushed in the exchange.
“Perhaps it will be better there. Or perhaps Allah will offer me wisdom when I complete the Hajj. I cannot say.”
“Dr. Abdul Haqq Walid,” Thomas said, raising his mug. “Taqabbal Allahu minna wa minkum. If you do return, do you promise to visit me? I feel we have many things to discuss.”
It was Abdul’s turn to hold Thomas’s gaze. He felt that tidal pull of curiosity again; a London with magic in it—that might just be enough to draw him back. “If I do return, Inspector Nightingale, do you promise to still be among the living?”
“I will keep that promise to the best of my ability,” said Thomas solemnly.
And, in a gesture worthy of a fickle, local, god, the lights chose that moment to come blazingly to life.